By DAVE PURDY
Last April I attended a White House LGBT Conference on HIV and AIDS, held at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. Following the meeting I posed a question to two leaders responsible for AIDS and LGBT issues in the White House: “When did the gay community separate from the AIDS community?” At first, I think they were surprised. After all, the gay community created the AIDS community. But now they are going in different directions.
I asked a second question: “Do you think if the gay and AIDS communities worked as one, as they did in the ‘80s and early ‘90s during the height of the U.S. epidemic, we would improve the chances of winning the war against this dreaded disease?”
“Absolutely,” they replied.
What happened and when did the separation occur? And how can we bring them together again?
First, a little history. On Jan. 4, 1982, following the Centers for Disease Control’s confirmation that the “new disease” is an epidemic, six gay men met in the Manhattan apartment of Larry Kramer, the author and playwright, to discuss “gay cancer,” now known as Kaposi’s Sarcoma. That day they created the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the world’s first AIDS organization.
In a few years, GMHC was also supporting straight men and women, children, hemophiliacs, drug users and blood transfusion recipients. Kramer also helped establish another entity, ACT UP, to generate and build support for the rights of AIDS patients through political protest. As GMHC continued its work, I remember talking with people who actually wanted GMHC to remove the word “gay” from its name.
Prior to AIDS, there was GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). It was the Centers for Disease Control that changed the name to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), a more accurate description of the disease. Of course, we all knew retaining the word “gay” could hold down funding, research and support.
In the early days of the disease, hospital rules and state laws commonly denied gay men visits with their partners; in many cases, the families prevented contact, as well. Thus, thousands of AIDS-infected gay men died alone and many never received a proper burial.
It’s time to link gay and AIDS again. It was the gay community that created the AIDS community and, in many cases, it was the AIDS community that helped support and raise awareness of the gay community.
One example is GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), established in 1985 specifically to fight the stigma of AIDS and sensationalized reporting in the media. But will you find the word AIDS on the GLAAD website today? Rarely, as is the case for a number of our largest gay organizations.
The words gay and AIDS have been synonymous. Being a gay man and living with HIV in the United States definitely has its challenges, but they’re nothing compared with being gay and HIV positive in other parts of the world. In some countries, it’s common to be banished from your village or town, ostracized, or beaten and, in many cases, killed. Throughout the world, gay men with HIV are dying, not killed by AIDS, but murdered.
Before the 19th International AIDS Conference I discussed this separation of communities with staffers connected to one of the largest LGBT organizations. In addition to other issues, their responsibility includes HIV. When I asked how and when the separation occurred, they denied there was a problem. The gays have their issues and organizations, they pointed out, and those living with HIV and AIDS have theirs – it’s all covered.
Covered? Really? According to the CDC, young gay men and MSM account for 69 percent of all new HIV infections among persons aged 13–29. Also, the number of new infections in this country has never decreased. Never.
Every AIDS organization should have a division and point person whose sole focus is gay-related issues, and every gay organization should have an AIDS division and expert. That way, resources, ideas, and strategies can be shared, benefitting both communities, which could lead to the kind of power that could end AIDS and homophobia forever.
Dave Purdy is founder and CEO of the World AIDS Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.